Sunday, April 19, 2015

Trifecta: an Exercise in Dumb Toughness

A wise man once told me, "If you're gonna be dumb, you gotta be tough."  That man is now running in a skirt once a month due to losing a bet, but the message still rings true.  This past weekend, in an act that most would describe as dumb and tough, I raced three races in one day.  In the evening was the Moonlight 5k, Half Marathon, and movie at the Badin Drive-In in Albemarle.  I won the half the previous year and got 2nd place in the 5k (winning the Double Feature award for combined time), so I was compelled to come back and give it a go at defending my title.  However, many of my students from my elementary school's afternoon run club were racing the Rhythm & Run 5k in Kannapolis the same morning.  I wanted to go out and support my kids, and the cash prize for first three overall was an added incentive.  Just like that, I was committed.
9:00am: Rhythm & Run 5k
The day was warm and humid, and it was only going to get more so as the day wore on.  I showed up in Kannapolis for a very abbreviated warm-up (I had to save my legs for the other races) and scouted the field for potential threats.  I saw Dustin Branham in his conspicuous, red DART singlet and waved hello.  Deep down, he and I were both thinking, "damn, I was hoping he wouldn't show up!"  Dustin had only been getting faster, and he was in top form after recently running a 1:27 PR for half marathon. He and I noted a couple more fast looking high school runners before we saw Fam.  Well, there went 1st place...
We three lined up for the start line in the front row, along with fellow Reckless Running Ambassador Julie Alsop, who had won the women's field at the race the past two years.  The high school runners were there too, asking direct questions about our 5k PRs to size us up.  Great...  Since I teach in Kannapolis and had previewed the course the previous week, I shared the important details with Dustin and Fam: fast, downhill first half, then a steady uphill, 100 yards of grass surface through Village Park, a tunnel under the Loop Road, a couple of hairpin turns, an awfull uphill in the last mile, then flat for the last half mile.  It was not an easy course, especially with the humidity.
At the start, Fam shot off to a predictable lead.  Also ahead of me were High School runner 1, Dustin, and High School Runner 2, in that order.  The first half mile was a good, open, flat stretch around the NC Research campus where I could nail down a sustainable pace.  Dustin and the HS runners were going out fast, and I was not ready to start chasing anyone.  Fam was way ahead.  In fact, he had left the lead, Segway-driving officer in the dust!  HS2 faded back to me in the first couple of minutes, and after his footfalls faded, he never returned.
Shortly after we crossed the Loop Road and hit the Baker's Creek Greenway about a mile into the race, Dustin passed HS1 and kept moving on.  My first mile was a 5:52, which meant Dustin must have been in the mid 5:40s.  That was fast, but a 5k isn't over until 3.1...  The greenway was fast and flat, and I could see HS1 struggling to hold his pace, especially on the gradual uphill leading to the end of the greenway at Village Park.  I passed HS1 with confidence on that climb and ran into Village Park with my gaze fixed on Dustin.  I was getting closer, but we were now past the 2 mile mark and he still had a few seconds on me.  Did he have enough left in him for a late race push?
I reeled Dustin in bit by bit on the grassy section before the tunnel.  I knew he would hear my footfalls in the echoing tunnel, so I made my move there and passed him before the double-hairpin walkway leading up to the sidewalk on the Loop Road.  I was now in 2nd place.  I tried to ignore Dustin and dig in on the big hill and maybe open up some distance between us before the flat homestretch.  It sucked, but it was over soon enough.  With 1/2 mile left, I saw that I had a chance for a good finishing time, so I opened up my stride.  The final turn gave way to a great straightaway, so I sprinted in for what was one of my top five 5k times, an 18:31.  Dustin came in hot for an 18:46, which was not only a big PR, but the fulfillment of one of his recent goals of going sub-19. HS1 finished about 30 seconds after Dustin.  Julie came in shortly after the 20 minute mark and won the women's race for the 3rd year in a row.  Fam had been done for minutes by the time we had finished.  DART had dominated with both overall wins and the top three spots on the men's side.
Fam (with Lil' Fam) in 1st, me in 2nd, and Dustin in 3rd, all winning cash money!

7:00pm Moonlight 5k
The 5k at the Moonlight Drive-In race event is what RD Peter Asciutto woud call the flattest, fastest 5k course in Stanly County.  The course profile was inviting, but the 80 degree temperatures with 100% humidity would add some challenge, especially considering I had raced a hard 5k 10 hours before.  The field for this 5k was smaller and less stacked, and only a few of them were racing the half a couple hours later for the Double Feature award, but I was not going to sandbag any of these three races.  After, if you're gonna be dumb, well, you gotta be tough.
Again, my warm-up was very short, just enough to shake out some of the gunk from the previous race.  I greeted fellow DARTers Bobby and Nicole Aswell and Sarah Ferris.  With very little ceremony, Peter lined us up, explained the simple course and gave us the go.  I ran out to an early lead (after overtaking an overzealous 10-year-old) and focused only on pace.  I could hear the footfalls of the 2nd place runner, but they were becoming more and more faint.  I tried to maintain a 6:00-6:10 pace, but with the humidity and latent fatigue from the morning, it was taking quite a bit more effort than usual.
The start of the 5k.  I developed an early lead after catching the blurry kid in front.

When I reached the turnaround at the halfway point, I could tell I had nearly a minute lead on 2nd place, so I felt pretty safe.  When I reached the second mile, he was nowhere in sight.  I considered easing up the pace a little to save some gas for the half marathon, but that notion just didn't feel right.  Besides, I was flirting with another sub-19 finish, so I couldn't in good conscience hold back.
After the turnaround in the 5k, I had a big lead.  Photo courtesy of Bobby Aswell.

I was going to be a close call for sub-19.  Once I made the last turn, I had about 30 seconds left.  The finish to this 5k was remarkably similar to last year's 5k.  I poured on the gas to break the tape at 18:53, the same time to the second as last year.  2 of 3 races were in the books.  I had a 2nd place finish and a 1st place finish, but with a half marathon left, I was not even halfway done, volume wise.
1st place in the 5k.  2 races down, 1 big one left.

9:00pm: Moonlight Half Marathon
Fellow DARTer and ultra runner Chad Randolph showed up to participate in the half, so I grabbed yet another short warm-up with him in the full dark before the race started.  I could tell from those brief 10 minutes of easy running that the legs were tired, and I was not looking forward to this hilly half marathon with my usual pre-race enthusiasm.  The temperature had cooled, but not by much, and the humidity was still high, making the air sticky and uncomfortable.  The competition was also more fierce.  I briefly met Michael, a younger runner who recognized my Reckless Running singlet because he had seen Fam train with App State students when he ran in college.  Michael was far younger than me, and if he had run for his college, he would be formidable.  Also present was Adam, a.k.a. Tall Man from last year's Moonlight Half.
I tried to shake the gunk out of my race-addled legs by jumping up and down at the start, but I knew I just wasn't going to feel loose again until we started running.  I was tired, but I felt like I still had 13.1 miles left in me.  After the go, Michael and Tall Adam shot off ahead in a mid-6s pace, while I settled in to a 6:50ish pace.  My ultimate goal was to win the half again, and maybe beat last year's time, but I was not going to do that by challenging the leaders too early.  Last year, I had let Adam and Rob get far ahead of me before I reeled them in.  No matter what distance the race, from 5k to marathon+, I always try to have focus on the long game.  Plus, my tired legs wouldn't have much of a fifth gear after the day's racing, so I needed to save it.
3rd position proved to be a relative no-man's land for the first few miles.  I could see Adam's blinky light ahead, and Michael was not wearing one, so I only saw him when he was in view of Adam's headlamp.  As far as I could tell, there was no one behind me for minutes.  As we made our way into Morrow Mountain State Park, I caught up with Adam at the 4-mile mark.  This was a lot earlier in the race than when I caught up to him last year, but the race was feeling longer to me already.  I focused on the barely discernible outline of Michael ahead of me, but I couldn't help but notice that Adam's footfalls were never really fading away.  He wasn't racing in my pocket like Benny the Belgian did at the Race for R.A.R.E., but he was close enough to be heard, so he was in my head.
The ceaseless, rolling hills became more and more pronounced as we neared Morrow Mountain, the capstone of this challenging course.  After making the hairpin turn leading to the steepest part of the climb to the summit, I tried to convince myself, "this is the worst'll be over soon, harden the f*** up!"  The climb was awful, more so than I remembered, or perhaps I was just more tired.  I could see Michael and hear Adam still, so there was incentive to keep pushing, but the summit just never seemed to get any closer.
The elevation profile for the Moonlight Half Marathon.  Morrow Mountain looms like a giant middle finger flipping you off in defiance.

After an eternity of climbing, I reached the top a few moments after Michael and turned around for the downward plunge.  The pressure was on, and I couldn't let Michael or Adam gain too much ground.  Soon, I was cranking out gravity-assisted 6:00 paces.  I saw Chad near the bottom of the steep hill and he cheered me on.  He had a solid hold on 4th place, and he eventually would finish in 4th.  After rounding the hairpin, the mountain continued steadily down, giving back all of the altitude we had climbed leading up to it.  Suddenly, Adam's footfalls grew louder--a sound so unwelcome it was almost deafening.  My calves were aching from the bounding downhill, and I had given myself a side stitch from chasing Michael, so there was nothing I could do to respond when Adam passed me decisively.  We were over 7 miles into the half marathon, and that's the first (and only) time someone passed me during all the day's races.  I had more than 5 miles left to run on very hilly terrain, and anytime I tried to shift into a higher gear to pursue the two runners ahead, my body protested.  I could maintain a low-7s pace, but that was all I had left.  I felt bonked like the end of a marathon, so the only thing left to do was sustain the pain and bring it in for a 3rd place finish.
That's exactly what I did.  The last three miles were utter crap.  I maintained my pace, but every second was painful.  I finished with a 1:31:58, which was only half a minute slower than my time the previous year, but it was still my slowest and most painful half in over three years.  However, I did make the podium with all three of the day's races.  In fact, it was a solo trifecta; I got a win, a place, and a show.  Also, my combined 5k and half marathon times earned me a repeat win for the Moonlight Double Feature award.  So despite the agony I was feeling, it was a good day.  Long, but good.
Coming in for a 3rd place finish under the headlamp.  Photo courtesy of Bobby Aswell.

Me with Chad after the half.  Chad got 4th.  The trophy is the Double Feature 1st place award.

Some lessons learned:
1) Racing a hard, hilly half marathon after two sub-19 5ks is not the best idea.
2) Don't ever believe you can't bonk during a half marathon, because you most certainly can!
3) After a hard evening of racing, the 75 minute drive home through the rain in the middle of the night is the worst part.
4) Being dumb and tough isn't all it's cracked up to be...or is it?

Friday, April 3, 2015

Shaking a Shadow: Race For R.A.R.E. 10-miler Recap

When I won a free entry into Race For R.A.R.E trail 10-miler from the Run With Theoden Facebook Page, I thought, "sure.  It won't be a focus race, but it'll be a fun time on the trails."  I wasn't expecting to take it too seriously.  Of course, as is often the case when I show up to a "fun race," things got a little out of hand.
It was an unseasonably cold day for late March, cold enough to necessitate ear warmers, gloves, and arm sleeves.  Many racers were clad in leggings and long sleeve tops.  I was the only one in a singlet and split shorts.  One female racer remarked, "No matter how cold it is, there's always some guy in a singlet and split shorts..."  Guitly.
I lined up near the front of the pack, and as the RD gave us the go, I shot out in front with a couple other runners.  One was 5k participant who quickly faded behind.  The other was Benny, a young, tall Belgian with a long-legged stride.  After about a half-mile of smooth road, we shot into the sweet, single-track trails with me up front.  I wasn't planning from the start to be the front-runner; that's just where it felt right to be at the time.
After another half-mile, it was pretty clear that the race for overall winner was going to be between just Benny and me.  We didn't trade places at all.  He just stayed right on my shoulder and let me set the pace.  The trails were what I would call "fast technical."  They were hilly and zigzaggy enough to keep me on my toes, but not so rooty or rocky as to keep me from going fast.  And with Benny on my back, I was not of a mind to slow down.
Benny the Belgian chasing me as he did the whole race.

I kept thinking to myself "this guy is young, and young guys always go out fast.  After a few miles, he'll fade."  He didn't.  I almost wished he would pass me so that I could chase him for a change, but I wasn't going to just give him the lead, so I kept pushing.
The undulating trail took us up to the base of Spencer Mountain at the halfway point, and some of the hard climbs and rapid descents really began to wear on us...or at least on me.  After 6 or 7 miles, the Brussels Sprout was still on me like syrup on a waffle.  This is the part of a race that Greg McMillan would call the Go-Zone.  It's far enough into the race that the distance and the pace have taken their toll, but not close enough to the end to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  This is where the strong racer makes his move and separates the men from the boys.  That's exactly what I was trying to do: separate the man from the boy.  Whenever I would see an opportune stretch of trail, I would surge in an effort to drop Benny.  No joy.  He never let more than one or two seconds separate us.  He was tenacious.
When I knew we were only about a mile from the finish, I had a foreboding feeling that Benny had me right where he wanted me.  I just knew he was going to stay in my pocket and try and out-kick me.  I did not like the prospect of trying to kick against someone half my age.  All I could do was push the pace and try to make him work to keep up.
We broke out onto the smooth road again, just over a quarter mile from the finish, and the challenge was on.  The sun was at our backs, and I could see Benny's shadow creeping up as he made his move.  I surged.  As we made it through the final sprint, I screamed as I let out everything I had.  It was just enough.  I beat Benny for the overall win by 1/3 of a second.  It was the closest and most consistently competitive race I've done in...well...ever.
Despite the feeling of being chased the whole time, the trails were super fun, and I had a great time.  I'll be back next year.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Skechers Performance GoRun4 Review

One of the perks of working a part-time job as a running retailer is that I get to know a lot of product reps.  When one of those reps is friend in your running community, all the better.  Lately, I've had the opportunity to run in a few Skechers Performance running shoes: the GoRun Ultra enhanced cushion trainer, the GoRun4 lightweitht trainer, and the GoMeb3 racing flat.  The GoRun Ultra is a soft, hybrid-lugged shoe that's extremely comfortable for long runs, recovery days, or general day-usage.  The GoRun4 is really more my speed as a trainer, and it deserves an in-depth review.  Given the shoe's versatility, I also will describe it in comparison to the GoMeb3.
 Full Disclosure, the GRU and the GM3 were sample pairs on extended loan from my local running Performance Rep.  The GR4 was a personal purchase from Skechers Performance.

Out of the box (looks and specs):
The most striking thing about the GR4 upon taking it out of the box was its weight.  Skechers Performance (SP) gives a weight of 7.8oz for a men's size 9 (I wear 9.5), but I think they feel lighter.  More on that in a bit.  The indicated heel-to-toe drop is 4mm without the removable sock-liner, and 8mm with the sock-liner.  If you prefer to train in lightweight performance shoes like the Saucony Kinvara or New Balance 890, this shoe is in your wheelhouse.  SP also offers the GR4 in a wide array of colorways.  I opted for the blue/gray/black option, and I think the shoe looks badass.
On the foot (fit and feel):
Even before you put the GR4 on your foot, you can tell that the material on the upper is going to be soft and forgiving.  SP uses a one-piece, nearly seamless upper that disappears on foot.  The sock-liner is removable for a higher volume fit, or to feel more of the road.  Since the upper is so forgiving, and the last of the shoe provides ample room, I chose to keep the sock-liner in the shoe for my runs.  That being said, the comfortable upper allows for pretty much unrestricted sock-free wear, so the Sockless Runner doesn't have to be an impostor.  The heel cup is soft, pliable, and non-restrictive, and there is a recess cut into the fabric of the heel collar for quick, pull-on convenience.  As far as step-in comfort, this shoe rivals the Pearl Izumi Road N1, the UnderArmour SpeedForm Gemini, and the Saucony Zealot ISO-fit.  Lots have companies have been experimenting with innovations in midsole technology and geometry, but the latest shoe tech trends seem to have been focused on making plush, comfy uppers.  With the GR4, Skechers Performance is right up there with the top brands on that front.
On the road (ride and performance).
One thing a lot of GR4 runners notice is that it rides a bit firmer than it looks.  In this way, it's similar to the Pearl Izumi Road N1.  However, like the N1, the firm-ish ride is also incredibly smooth.  Personally, in a performance trainer, I would take firm and smooth over cushy and soft any day.
Part of the smoothness of the ride comes from SP's proprietary M-strike technology, which both favors and rewards an efficient, midfoot strike.  The midsole contains two densities of Resolyte (SP's memory-foam-like, durable midsole compound), so the different color sole in the midfoot is a bit more responsive and more prominent.  While this prominence is less noticeable than it has been in previous versions of the GoRun, it's more apparent than it is in the GoMeb3 racer.  The bottom of the shoe comprises mostly exposed midsole, which keeps the weight down and contributes to the silky ride, but there are strategically placed rubber outsole pods to provide some road traction and extra proprioception.  The combination of the plush upper and the smooth-riding midsole really makes the GR4 disappear on your feet during the run, especially on hilly terrain.  Thus, the weight and offset mentioned above aren't features I take much notice of.  The way the weight is distributed throughout the transition, the shoe feels much lighter than it is.  In fact, it feels lighter than the GoMeb3.
Best uses (for me):
I've taken the GR4 on several runs, including medium long runs (10-12 miles), tempo intervals, and easy base days.  These runs have been mostly on rolling road routes, with a few miles here and there on minimally technical trails.  While the shoe is very versatile, it really shines when you pick up the pace.  The GR4 is a great choice for tempo runs, hill repeats, and longer races (15k-marathon).  I got to race the very hilly Ellerbe Marathon in the GoMeb3, and had great success.  However, at virtually the same weight, and with a smoother (in my opinion) ride, I think I would choose the GR4 over the GM3 for another hilly marathon.  I prefer something a little more featherweight and firm than the GR4 for 5k/10k races, but most people would really enjoy the GoRun4 as a 5k racer.  In fact, my friend and fellow Reckless Running brand ambassador Bobby Aswell has had a lot of recent success with the GR4 as his 5k racer lately, and he runs 50+ races a year.
Final thought
At $100, and with a lot of distinctive features that set it apart from other performance trainers, the Skechers Performance GoRun4 is worth a look for efficient runners or those who might want a fast-day shoe.  Bottom line, this shoe is legit.  Skechers Performance flexes its running tech muscles with this one, and based on how the GoRun has evolved over its first 4 versions, the brand shows its willingness to adapt and improve to the needs and wants of the running base.  Great shoe!